Eight students from Penn State Hillel traveled to Roatan, Honduras, for a weeklong service learning experience. The trip, billed as an alternative winter break program, was intended to introduce students to a community largely affected by HIV/AIDS, said Hannah Giterman, Hillel community engagement associate.
“The trip is dedicated to the community of Roatan, Honduras and those living with HIV/AIDS. Penn State Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives [of] our students so that they may enrich the world,” said Giterman in an email. “Through this trip, we are inspiring all Jewish students to explore the values of tikkun olam and social justice. We hope to empower the students to create change through education, advocacy and service.”
Giterman said that participating students spent their days “rebuilding” Roatan.
“They’re rebuilding a community, not just physically, but emotionally.”
Apart from reconstructing a home that had crashed over the side of a ravine, students joined Familias Saludables, a support group for Roatan residents infected with HIV. Students heard from locals about living with HIV and struggling with discrimination in Honduras.
Robby Ost, who like other participating students blogged about the experience, wrote, “[W]e heard from other locals living with HIV, sharing their struggles with health, discrimination and the effects of HIV infection in their everyday lives. Their stories brought tears to the eyes of many in our group and resonated with certain members in particular, fostering personal reflection and empathy. This proved to be one of the most meaningful experiences of the trip, and the emotions and stories expressed by Elsie, her son Fernando, and the other women have left an indelible mark on us.”
Accompanying the Penn State students were two staff members: Leah Chakoff, director of engagement at Penn State Hillel, and Scott Fried, an award-winning motivational speaker and HIV/AIDS activist who has repeatedly traveled to Roatan to support its community.
Rebecca Lerman, vice president of Penn State Hillel and a Point Breeze native, first met Fried years ago.
“I was in BBYO in high school and had heard him speak multiple times. I got to know him; he does wear his heart on his sleeve,” said Lerman.
David Zaremsky, of Pittsburgh and a fellow participant with the Penn State Hillel group, said that he had also heard Fried earlier and praised the opportunity to travel with the “celebrity.”
“I only knew about Scott Fried through Emma Kaufman Camp; he had spoken there a few times,” said Zaremsky. “I knew he was a traveling lecturer, but just being with someone who is basically a celebrity, getting to see it through his eyes was really life changing.”
Zaremsky said that Fried inspired the Penn State Hillel group: “[He] is one of the most loving people I have ever met; all he does on this island is meet people and want know what is going on in their lives and how he can help. Everyone he meets he waves to, and they are a new friend for him. Having someone like that, someone who is so into being a part of a community and wants to give back like that, having that person be an adviser or leading the trip is really infectious.”
Fried happened upon Roatan nearly a decade ago while traveling on a cruise. While the ship docked on the island for six hours, Fried discovered a local epidemic — nearly one in seven people in Roatan are infected with AIDS. Fried committed to returning to the island and helping its inhabitants. He has been honoring that promise since.
“[Fried] goes back every year. It’s not only about building a house and helping the community, but forming relationships with the community,” stressed Lerman.
Throughout the week in Roatan, Fried imparted this sense of connection to the Penn State students.
“We formed these relationships with these people,” he said. “We all cried when we said goodbye, we really felt like part of their family. Physically, I’m back in the U.S., but my heart is still in Roatan with the people we worked with.”
Like the Honduras trip, Penn State Hillel has offered other “alternative break” experiences for nearly a decade.
Prior destinations have included Arkansas, New Orleans and Israel. In March, while partnering with students from the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State Hillel students will travel to San Marcos, Texas. The program will be a collaboration with the Jewish Disaster Relief Corporation.
“They’ve been a huge partner with a lot of Hillels around the country,” said Giterman, “Their mission has really been alternative winter breaks, so we’ve been partnering with them the last couple of years.”
Giterman believes that alternative break trips support Hillel’s mission.
“Part of our mission is to create Jewish leaders on campus so that they can enrich the world; this is a great experience for that,” she said. “There are a lot of great things going on in the world, and we sort of take that for granted. It’s a good educational experience and also teaches them about tikun olam and Jewish values and how that plays into people’s everyday lives.
“Whether you are an observant Jew or cultural Jew, whatever type of Jew, this is a Jewish value that we like to teach to our students.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.